Li Yitai's 1974 woodcut of Lu Xun [link to University of Kansas Art Museum
Hamlet in Hamburg, July 2009
When one strives to function, and not simply appear, as an expressively cognitive polyglot, it represents a return to a kind of 16th century normalcy. After all, Erasmus was not some freak of nature, nor were his students: as the historian Stuart Hughes points out in a wonderfully alive old essay which includes the phrase “historical virginity” and alerts the reader to the author’s traumatic encounter with France at age eight, multilingualism was the norm in the early modern era, rather than the exception.
And thus today, when attempting to recapture something valued of that era amid our wizardry, it helps to have something that can pull things together, a united idea around which similar notions can revolve and feed into a single expression. The task is to unite! To 统一 / tong’il / verbunden / unifiér …
The Shakespearean tragedy/悲剧 Hamlet is one incredible vehicle for achieving this type of unity.
My interest in reading Hamlet in translation was sparked by a bilingual English/German poche edition of King Lear I encountered and purchased in August 2008 at the Humboldt University Flea Market in Berlin. That night amid drizzle, I spent about 90 minutes reading it aloud on a damp and completely empty stone square in front of the Staatsoper.
(This is part of the fearful charm of Berlin — the ability to actually be alone in such a vast expanse, in the heart of an undulating capital, something I was reminded of again last month sitting by old Goethe in the Tiergarten….Together we sat in silence amid rabbits and trees, scents of the wooded dale, occasionally regarding the “Topography of Terror” and the Brandenburg Gate, completely unmolested by humanity. And the rabbits hop by, and a diesel engine gently awakes one from the drowsy absence of news from “out there”, and then one moves, ceding the poet to the next to arrive in the miraculous space, and soon then to recline upon the back of a different sinewy statue also torn by bullet holes, thinking of Goethe’s lyric but lapsing into some monumental composition instead of some damned “text message” to a nearby land which promises to wrest one away from the Hauptstadt and onesself.)
And so reading Lear in that drizzle, I found that at times the German was much, much more expressive than the English original!
This was a revelation to me: rather than “Bastard, Bastard, always Bastard!” one can say “Niedrig!” etc. And yet at other times the poverty of one language is made evident by the felicity of the other, sort of like a couple that appears to have an “achievement gap” but in fact it is all simply a matter of context and location. In other words, inherent conditions and capabilities can rise up unexpectedly even in a seemingly disadvantaged relationship, such as that of German to drama. Ha!
Now, what of Hamlet in Chinese? (Or, as he and it is known in the somewhat ridiculous and inevitably off-putting transliteration, 哈姆雷特/ ha mu lei te.)
Before the advent of the New Culture Movement in 1919, Shakespeare was not so prevalent in China. The Jesuits didn’t bring his work to the Qing court. Certainly there were huaqiao, or overseas Chinese, who had watched productions abroad, just as it was statistically possible for a Chinese to have attended the surreal 1830 premier in Paris of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with its great orgiastic paens to, and open obsession with, the British Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. And overseas Chinese communities in great drama towns like San Francisco in, say, the 1890s, might also have caught a whiff of the bard.
But few connoisseurs emerged, and no wide-spread translations. This
My little guide to the universe
was a major deficit in cultural cooperation! For meanwhile Orientalists like the great James Legge were running full-bore from their own traditions into the ample and inexhaustible arms of the other. And so the Analects were brought to London but Shakespear remained outside the gates of Peing, absent, perhaps, the possible performance or reading safely gated in Shanghai or Tianjin. And if the amazing Japanese Taisho novel Shanghai is any indication, Japanese emigres were a bit more concerned with survival and wealth than the Bard in the 1920s in Chinese treaty ports….
H. Stuart Hughes, History as Art and Science: Twin Vistas on the Past (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965).
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, vol. 2 of Saemtliche Werke [Complete Works] (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980).
鲁迅 Lu Xun, «奔流»编校后记 Afterword to “Limpid Stream,” in 集外集 （Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1973/1976), 137-180.